It’s hard to find anything but heartbreak in the case of Clifton Jones, who was convicted in 2007 of killing his infant son CJ based on what his lawyers from Keker, Van Nest & Peters and the Northern California Innocence Project call faulty forensic science about “shaken baby syndrome.”
But thanks to their pro bono work, there is at last a measure of justice.
On April 15, Jones, 45, walked free from Soledad State Prison in California, where he was serving a sentence of 25-years-to-life for involuntary manslaughter and assault on a child resulting in death.
Key to his release? His lawyers convinced the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office that the scientific consensus around shaken baby syndrome has significantly changed, and that Jones, after 15 years behind bars, deserved to be resentenced and released.
For their efforts, Keker partner Khari Tillery and associate Anjali Srinivasan, as well as Northern California Project Innocence Project supervising attorney Paige Kaneb are Legal Action’s Pro Bono Heroes for the month of April.
“This is the highest and best use of my law degree, to represent people who have had the weight of the criminal justice system unfairly leveled against them,” Tillery, a first-chair commercial litigator, told me.
Srinivasan added, “I don’t think we can ever really deliver justice for Clifton,” not when he’s lost 15 years of his life in prison. “We’ll never be able to right that. But it feels good to at least give him a second chance.”
Jones is part of a wave of parents and caretakers in recent years who have successfully challenged their convictions stemming from the death of a child by pointing to a revised medical understanding of what can cause shaken baby syndrome.
First hypothesized in the 1970s, the syndrome is characterized by bleeding behind the eyes, bleeding in the dural membrane over the brain, and brain swelling in babies and toddlers.
In 2017, Tillery and Kaneb won exoneration for Zavion Johnson, who was convicted of killing his 4-month-old daughter Nadia in 2001.
Johnson said his daughter slipped from his arms and hit her head on the bathtub when he was bathing her. But experts for the prosecution insisted that her injuries could only have been caused by violent shaking.
Two of those experts later revised their testimony based on subsequent medical research showing that the same trio of symptoms could be caused by a short fall, exactly what Johnson claimed.
Jones, too, said his son hit his head as the result of a fall. He said that on Dec. 13, 2005, he was carrying one-month-old CJ and tripped over a shoe on the floor. Jones fell and said that CJ’s head struck the wall as they went down.
The court noted that witnesses testified he was a “loving father” who was “calm and gentle with his son” and “never appeared disturbed by CJ's crying.”
But experts for the prosecution testified that CJ’s injuries could not have been caused by a fall and were “consistent with those of a child slammed against a wall or who had fallen from a second- or third-story balcony.”
At his first trial in Sacramento County Superior Court in 2006, a jury convicted Jones of involuntary manslaughter but were deadlocked on the more serious child abuse homicide charge. He was retried in 2007 and a second jury found him guilty on that count, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life. He would first have been eligible for parole in 2027.
In 2019, the Keker lawyers teamed up with the Northern California Innocence Project to take on his case. And then COVID-19 hit.
As the pandemic tore through the state prisons, Jones’ legal team in April 2020 filed an emergency petition for clemency with the California governor’s office.
They got no response.
Their next step was to file a habeas corpus petition, arguing that although the medical testimony may have been accurate at the time of Jones’ trial, recent medical advancements point to that testimony being false.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Steve White denied the petition in March, ruling that an additional expert opinion was necessary to support their request.
At the same time, Tillery, Srinivasan and Kaneb had been slowly negotiating with the Sacramento DA’s office, which ultimately agreed to file a motion to recall Jones’ sentence and resentence him.
The motion “was based in large part on the procedural history of the case and Mr. Jones’ rehabilitative efforts” in prison, Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard said in an email.
“We do note that the scientific research underlying what was once called ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ has changed significantly over the past several years,” he continued.
Still, he said the DA’s office does not believe Jones was wrongfully convicted as a result.
“Both of the prosecution’s experts who testified at trial were contacted and both found that research to be unpersuasive in changing their initial opinion based on the facts of the case.”
Jones’ lawyers could have fought on in further court proceedings. But the DA’s Justice Training and Integrity unit, in reviewing the full underlying conviction, agreed a resentencing was merited in the interest of justice.
At the DA’s request, Jones was resentenced to a lesser offense: prohibiting any individual who has care and custody of a child from willfully causing injuries to that child, which carries a maximum term of 6 years.
As a result, he was immediately eligible for release.
Tillery was there to greet him when he walked out of prison on April 15, and then went with him to visit his son’s grave.
“It was incredibly gut-wrenching and also very beautiful,” he said. “Clifton was arrested the day after his son died. He could never properly grieve the loss of his child.”
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